Michel Reilhac • Venice VR co-curator, Venice International Film Festival
“The way interactivity is designed is becoming really sophisticated at the moment”
- We met up with Michel Reilhac, co-curator of the VR section of the 76th Venice International Film Festival, to talk about immersive storytelling and developments in the field of VR
The VR section of the Venice Film Festival was first established in 2017, and it was back for its third edition in 2019. Held on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio, a former leper colony, just a stone’s throw and a ferry ride away from the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido, it featured 41 immersive pieces scattered across four different sections (Competition – Interactive, Competition – Linear, Biennale College Cinema – VR, and Best of VR – Out of Competition). We sat down with Michel Reilhac, who co-curated the section together with Liz Rosenthal, to talk about the programme itself and current developments in the field of VR.
Cineuropa: In 2017, Venice joined the ranks of film festivals that embraced virtual reality as an asset to their programme. Do you find film festivals to be a natural environment for immersive experiences? Is that framework of expanded cinema beneficial for VR, or is it becoming a burden?
Michel Reilhac: It is our goal to put VR content in the limelight, so that the audience, the media and the industry understand that immersive storytelling is not just a fad, nor is it an extension of cinema. It is an art form in itself. That's what we're promoting in Venice, where the glamour and exposure help us to make the case for exactly that. The VR programme is not only included among the official competition sections of the Venice Film Festival, but also, the three awards that we hand out are presented to the winners during the main awards ceremony. It's of the essence that the immersive works receive exactly the same statues as the feature films. No other festival in the world pushes that juxtaposition of immersive storytelling and cinema as far as we do it in Venice, and it has a huge impact on the audience and the industry.
What are the selection criteria for the Venice VR section?
In most cases, to qualify for the linear and interactive competitions, we require a world premiere. In some cases, when the works are of exceptional quality, we do admit international premieres, but we only have a few of those. There's a separate College section with three pieces that have been developed within the Biennale College Cinema VR programme. As they were supported by us, it wouldn’t be ethically sound to include them in the competition. Last but not least, there’s the Best of VR programme, where we present a selection of works that have impressed us throughout the year.
Is there anything that falls outside of your scope? Augmented reality? Performative pieces using VR?
We look at all immersive works. That includes all of the pieces that use mixed reality or virtual reality, but it could also be works that use dome projection and augmented reality. We stick to the broad definition of immersive storytelling. The second criterion is purely formal: we include animation, fiction and documentaries, but we steer clear of pieces that are games, per se. The line between interactive storytelling and game is not always easy to draw. There are hybrid works that are as much games as they are stories, but we're looking for experiences that do not put the game dynamics at the centre, but rather use them as a device to enable the story to progress.
After judging all of the submissions this year, have you noticed any technological, formal or geographical trends?
I would say that the new frontier, where the most interesting work is being done, is full interactivity in six degrees of freedom. The six degrees of freedom refer to the specific number of axes along which a body is able to move freely in three-dimensional space. The way interactivity is designed is becoming really sophisticated at the moment, and the makers put a lot of effort into understanding how interactivity might facilitate our connection with the characters. That being said, 360-degree videos have really matured, and we were surprised by the very high level of submissions. With only three degrees of freedom and no interactivity, these works are establishing that in-between immersive space between cinema and the interactive realm. Collective experiences, which allow for the participation of several people at the same time, in the same virtual space, are also becoming prominent.
In terms of geography, the USA and Asia are both very strong. Most of the money there is being spent by big studios and companies that are not expecting an immediate return on their investment. In Asia, China is the most proactive player, as it has moved on from basic games and commercial videos to more sophisticated content. The third region to mention would be Northern Europe, with Scandinavia and Germany at the forefront.
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